THOUGHT LEADER: Integration is central to PR's place in corporate world

A few years back when I was working on a project at Cisco to centralize the corporate and line-of-business PR shops, I researched a number of companies to understand how they organized their communications efforts. While many had different structures, one thing struck me. Each one - Intel, SBC, and several other top companies - had something in common: an ultimate group that made the key decisions that dictated the company's communications strategy and messaging. Sounds basic, but what's more striking is the number of companies (including Cisco) that have not embraced an integrated structure as critical to their communications success.

A few years back when I was working on a project at Cisco to centralize the corporate and line-of-business PR shops, I researched a number of companies to understand how they organized their communications efforts. While many had different structures, one thing struck me. Each one - Intel, SBC, and several other top companies - had something in common: an ultimate group that made the key decisions that dictated the company's communications strategy and messaging. Sounds basic, but what's more striking is the number of companies (including Cisco) that have not embraced an integrated structure as critical to their communications success.

Since the best PR initiatives are run like campaigns, imagine a war being fought where the leaders for the Army, Navy, and Air Force run their own ground, sea, and air campaigns, oblivious to each other. Where there's no agreement on strategy, little coordination, and no accountable chain of command. Doesn't bode well for success, does it? Well, that's what occurs each day in the corporate world at companies that don't integrate, and yes, even centralize, their communications arsenal. PR goes off pitching stories. Marketing churns out ads. Analyst relations (AR) meets with analysts. And everyone wonders why they're not as successful as they'd like to be. It doesn't have to be that way: PR isn't war (usually), but it can often be planned like one. It just takes a lot of commitment. Commitment from marketing, business units, and, most of all, the CEO, who must be ready to crack some heads when everyone doesn't get along. A few years back, IBM embarked to smash its marketing fiefdoms by boiling down thousands of messages across its many lines of business to just one: e-business. Now, nearly all of their marketing initiatives and website pages relate to their e-business message. Through this approach IBM was able to reinvent itself in the internet age. There is, of course, lots of lip service to integrated communications. But what does it mean? Here's a test: If you spend money on ads and don't derive "value-added" benefits such as speaking slots at events that the publications sponsor, you aren't integrated. If your speakers' activities aren't aligned with your events strategy, and your event folks don't know what PR and AR plan to announce in the next month, you aren't integrated. And if all of these folks don't get together regularly to talk and align strategy, you are doomed. Truly integrated communications are certainly easier said than done, but it's work well worth it. Here's why. Silos inevitably occur in every company. If the PR folks are aligned so tightly with the lines of business, they're often unable to break out of that silo, which means they become short-order cooks taking orders from business managers, rather than campaign strategists fitting in business strategy into the broader company story. That often translates into churning out a mindless volume of press releases, as opposed to engaging in strategic and effective campaigns that shape a corporate image. The reason that so few companies actually practice what they preach when it comes to integrated marketing is because it's tough to change human behavior, especially in well-developed corporate cultures that focus on multiple business priorities. Therefore, you must find simple, yet effective, campaigns that bridge gaps in an institution by weaving diffuse goals around a single objective. This was difficult to achieve at VeriSign, but it can happen. This fall, VeriSign's PR team, for example, launched a Trusted Commerce campaign to raise the awareness of the importance of online security. As part of it, the PR team, besides basic media and analyst outreach, developed an online ad campaign spotlighting trusted commerce sites to shop at this holiday season, and placed executives at Comdex to present on the core needs for e-commerce security. All coordinated by a PR manager who controls all facets of the campaign - from content to strategy to execution. This seems basic, because it is. But how often is PR directing advertising and events in your company? Another sign to watch for is that most integrated communications teams report to either the CEO or head of corporate marketing. The reasoning is simple. If the team reports to the CEO, they have wide influence to shape a company's image whether or not the PR, AR, events and ad/branding teams sit under the same umbrella. And if it reports to corporate marketing, there's a strong chance those other functions will as well. Of course, not everyone is going to agree with a centralized approach. It's a fact of life that companies swing between favoring centralized (tightens messaging, saves costs) and decentralized (more nimble and accountable to business groups) models. Business groups clamor for control, and don't want "corporate" meddling in their activities. But if the PR industry is to develop further, and earn standing in corporate boardrooms, it must be strategic. To be so, communications teams must be positioned in a way that enables them to shape a company's broad image. Anything less sets us up for failure. There's an old cliche: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Sometimes cliches are true.
  • Tom Galvin is corporate communications director at VeriSign.

  • Have you registered with us yet?

    Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

    Register
    Already registered?
    Sign in